I love British cars. Not the new, Bavarian Minis and Bentleys. I'm talking the British Leyland-era machines that verge on a meltdown in summer traffic and leak oil on a whim. Jaguars of old, like the XK-E and Mark 2, carried themselves with an air of opulent grace —even if it was while getting towed to the repair shop.
But the company seems haunted by its glamorous past, and tried unsuccessfully to revive classic designs in recent decades. The XJ prior to 2009 and X-Type were fixated on the handsome XJ6 saloon from the '80s, but never enjoyed the same success of their predecessor. The Mark-2-aping Jaguar S-Type in the end floundered as well, and was thankfully replaced by the boldly contemporary XF.
Still, they haven't given up on the legacy of the sultry XK-E—made apparent by the 2012 Jaguar XKR convertible. It beautifully taps into its illustrious ancestor with the oval grill and flowing profile, and it's Jaguar's best take on a luxury sports car since the Coventry coupe/convertible from the '60s (putting sour memories of the XJS behind). Still, the XKR's sheet metal looks oddly reserved, like Christina Hendricks in a frumpy dress. Inside is a letdown; on one hand the style isn't retro, but the piano-black-accented cabin could be found in any other luxury car. When a brand is known for seductive design, being generic — even forgettable — is a significant blow.
And I think it's a big mistake for Jaguar to woo the Android generation with ponderous tech. Granted it's not rife with gimmickry like the XJ (and its touch-buttoned glove box), but a cylindrical knob that rises from the center console seems pointlessly complex. It's also confusing, since most cars use center-mounted wheels for navigation. Jaguar seems to misunderstand that geeks aren't drawn to tech for tech sake, but because it enables them to be power users—or as with the iPad, simplifies tasks with better design (and you can't get much simpler than the old-fashioned shifter). Technology has never been the allure of a Jaguar; the Don Drapers and Steve McQueens of the world didn't care whether a Jaguar XK-E had a hydropneumatic suspension like a Citroen DS. A Jaguar's appeal has been an emotional draw that looks beyond technology or practicality; a beauty that's priceless.
Fortunately, the grumblings dissipate on the road. Hit the push start and the 510-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 snarls to life with a throaty, raspy growl. Although the acceleration could be smoother and more linear, it's got a buttoned-up attitude that contrasts to the orchestral roar of the BMW M6's V-8. Tipping the scales at 4,079 lbs., the XKR is no lean cat, but you wouldn't know it with its light-footed chassis. It crisply turns in with little body roll, and has a rear end that gently swings around when applying the throttle. And the tight turning radius makes it easy to maneuver through narrow parking lots.
Although it's a car that loves being pushed, the XKR is in its element as a sumptuous cruiser. With the electronic-folding top up, the cabin remains serenely hushed even at high speeds, though there was an audible hiss from the rear window. The mix of a smooth ride and agile dynamics makes even a humble grocery-store run a decadent delight.
But is the Jaguar XKR worth $103,500? When the price tag is well beyond plebian reach, it's impossible to talk in sheer practical terms. To that subjective end, the Jaguar XKR isn't a machine that I ache to own. But with Jaguar getting top marks for initial quality from J.D. Power and Associates, chances are the Jaguar XKR will physically hold up better than its predecessors — even if its legacy doesn't.